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Rural Women\’s Assembly on Africa and the COVID-19 Pandemic

In the time of COVID-19, organisations like the Rural Women\’s Assembly (RWA) are driving solutions to keep members and communities engaged and functioning in a very uncertain time. This does not mean that the RWA membership is not impacted by COVID-19, however, the women show resilience and strive to meet the demands of the pandemic while also meeting the needs of their fellow members with creativity and ingenuity. Doing a temperature test on the different countries in the region, there are a few clear similarities and key experiences worth highlighting.


We hope to also highlight that whilst things have been very challenging for our membership, we have also seen how our sisters have self-organised to support their communities by disseminating information, food parcels, hand washing stations, soap, hand-sanitisers and dignity packs across our region.

RWA ZAMBIA by Grace Tepula

RWA members in Zambia, distributed face masks, hand wash buckets and soap. They also explained the importance and benefits of indigenous red local maize seeds to the Mayor of Luanshya in Zambia who accompanied them on this drive.

We have distributed 600 face masks and 6 hand wash buckets with soap to two markets and a community in our area. One market is at the junction where trucks drive through to Congo from Dar es Salaam and where they park for a night. This area is where most of our COVID-19 cases have originated from.

RWA ZIMBABWE by Melody Nyamukapa

As of 21 May 2020, Zimbabwe has 48 Coronavirus cases with deaths and 18 recoveries recorded. The nation has experienced two levels to the lockdown thus far. Level 1 was in place for seven weeks starting on 30 March 2020. At this level, only essential services were open and the government provided transport through its state-owned (ZUPCO) buses. The nation moved on to Level 2 lockdown on 18 May 2020 and will be indefinite, with 2-week review intervals. 

In level 2 lockdown, industry and commerce have opened, with strict health requirements as prescribed by WHO. The government is still providing transport with their ZUPCO buses, but there are some areas in the country where the public buses do not go, especially most parts of the rural areas in the countryside.

Anyone out in public is required to wear a mask and while people are still encouraged to stay at home, and gatherings are being discouraged, events like funerals and important meetings are still occurring – with a limit of 50 people per gathering, whilst also practising social distancing of at least one (1) meter apart during these meetings.

As a result of these restrictions, we, the Rural Women in Zimbabwe have been met with some challenges. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, life will no longer be the same for rural women. We are deeply affected by the pandemic. The women are the ones who take care of the families and they survive on a hand to mouth basis.

Here are some points to consider on the limitations due to the lockdowns:

  • Lack of transport in rural towns means that there is limited access to supermarkets resulting in these rural communities not being able to access groceries (especially essentials like sanitary wear). There are also much fewer pesticides for plants. This is particularly true for areas like Bubi and Thulilishongwe in the Matebeleland Province where our fellow sisters are. Transport to healthcare services is also unavailable or difficult to access. The issue was/is even worse for pregnant women who need to deliver their babies.
  • Due to the lockdown, most women are now locked in with the perpetrators of their abuse, thus they are now vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV) with some of the women falling victim to GBV during the lockdown.
  • There is poor healthcare service delivery, especially by local clinics due to a shortage of medication. Healthcare professionals also do not have protective clothing to protect themselves when attending to patients.
  • Another huge obstacle for our rural communities is that there is a lack of awareness and knowledge on the COVID-19 disease.

However, in midst of all these challenges and in fighting the pandemic, as rural women we are still impacting our communities positively, doing our part as the RWA in Zimbabwe.

We have managed to communicate with our fellow sisters using WhatsApp and bulk messaging to raise awareness about the COVID-19 disease, especially debunking the myths that surround the disease. The facilitators and the members that we communicate with are responsible for disseminating the information to their fellow members in the same village that they are from if they did not have access to cell phones.

Due to lack of transport, people are unable to access basic goods and have resorted to purchasing at local farmers markets. In Thulilishongwe, Gwanda in Matebeleland Province and Chiundura, Gweru in Midlands Province the rural women are providing and supplying the local markets with fresh produce, thus feeding their communities.

RWA Namibia, by Agnes T. Upi-Tdjindjo

Like any other country on the globe, Namibia has not been spared the wrath of the COVID19 pandemic. Though the country has only registered 16 imported cases, the government had to take serious measures to prevent local transmission of COVID-19.

Some of these measures included the President declaring a seven month state of emergency, 38-day full country lockdown, social distancing as well as the closure of schools and all border entry points. All this has had a great impact on rural women in several different ways.

  • Firstly, most rural women are always involved in some form of small informal businesses in their local communities like selling kapana (cooked) food. However, all this had to stop, thus reducing daily household income.
  • Women involved in crop farming found themselves helpless as, by March most crops were ready for harvesting but farmers could not hire casual labour to assist with the harvesting. Also, there was no market to sell the fresh produce, so some crops could only rot in the fields. This led to a loss of much-needed income.
  • With the closure of all border entry points into Namibia, some rural women in Erongo and Kunene region who are involved in craft making and selling to incoming tourists now have no source of income.
  • The prolonged closure of schools is another challenge to rural women. The government is considering e-learning to save the academic year, however, most rural areas lack conducive infrastructures such as network connections and electricity, parents are not able to afford radios, televisions, computers or smartphones, which further complicates the extension of learning to these devices. Additionally, many parents cannot help their children with school work.
  • Lack of clean potable water and proper sanitation facilities in many rural areas make it difficult for women to maintain some of the preventative measures recommended by World Health Organization (WHO) such as regular hand washing – coupled with the scarcity of hand sanitizers this presents a major obstacle.

However, all is not lost because rural women have embarked on measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, some of these include:

  • Designing and distributing information materials to empower fellow rural women on how COVID-19 is spread and how contracting it can be prevented.
  • Teaching households how to improvise in the absence of running water and hand sanitizers.
  • Assisting fellow women to apply for the emergency income grant (EIG), at the value of N$750.00, extended by the government as a relief to informal businesses impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns.
  • Some RFPs have liaised with their constituency councillors and traditional authorities and managed to secure food parcels for distribution to vulnerable rural households (mainly women-headed households).
  • As the government has declared the wearing of face masks mandatory, rural women skilled in tailoring have been mobilized to start manufacturing masks to distribute and sell to their communities.
  • Again the Namibia RWA steering committee made efforts to write a proposal to RWA and managed to secure N$30,000.00, which has been used to buy soap, sanitizers and materials that can be used to make masks for distribution to members in the fourteen regions.
  • Also as a way of keeping the project activities alive during the lockdown, each RFP was assigned some tasks that can be done in the comfort of one’s own home. These included: Updating the regional members’ list, compiling a regional activity progress report, carrying out some research on women and other general CBOs in the regions, etc.

RWA Malawi, by Pilirani Mazizi

Rural Women\’s Assembly in Malawi has advised its members to adopt precautionary measures against COVID-19. To protect the health and safety of our members, the RWA has been conducting training sessions aimed at raising awareness and sensitizing the members about COVID-19 and the importance of following the measures put in place by the government of Malawi to slow the spread of the virus.

The chairperson for the RWA Malawi chapter, Miss Alice Kachere, says that although measures such as social distancing will negatively affect crucial agricultural activities such as harvesting, and running markets, it is very important for its members and farmers at large to follow the measures to fight the virus. She says, “we have learnt that the symptoms of a person infected with coronavirus are coughing, sneezing, difficulty in breathing and fever.” During the trainings Health Surveillance Assistant Benjamin Mbewe stressed that the disease is transmitted by droplets from infected people and by wearing a mask and keeping social distance, such contact and transmission will be prevented.

In Malawi, the government is advising social distancing by keeping at least one metre apart, not shaking hands, avoiding public gatherings of more than 100 people, and reducing the number of people in both public and private vehicles.

RWA eSwatini by Zakithi Sibandze

eSwatini is currently at 217 cases, 2 deaths and 97 recoveries, which makes it the  country with the second highest record of COVID-19 cases in Africa. The sad part is that the government is not doing enough testing so we are not sure that our records are completely accurate. The  country is in a situation where the health system is at its worst, the hospitals don\’t even have simple medication for a normal cold.

Currently the COVID-19 situation is being curved though donations. The country is currently on lockdown and anyone who is out in public and moving between spaces  requires a letter which should state the purpose of travel, and failure to provide such documentation, may lead to an engagement with the police and soldiers. Masks are also required when you are in public, and not wearing one in public can lead to a fine.

RWA in eSwatini reaches its members mainly though calls during the lockdown but also uses bulk SMS, WhatsApp and Facebook – although some members do not have android phones and the data is expensive in our country.

Challenges faced by women during the COVID-19 lockdown


  • Rural women, especially those who are farmers, derive their livelihood from the farms. With the lockdown, these farmers are stuck with their produce, especially the Shiselweni region where they farm sweet potatoes and transport them to as far as Manzini region to sell them, but due to the lockdown, this no longer can happen.
  • Other women do hand work and sell in town at the free market, which is not an option during lockdown.
  • A majority of women sell fruits and vegetables but they are now not doing this out of fear for their health and those who are able to sell don\’t have clients as no one is at the taxi and bus ranks.
  • The lockdown was unexpected and, since it occurred towards month end when debts were meant to be collected, it left some women out of pocket and  subjected their families to hunger as they haven’t been able to purchase their own food.
  • Some highlighted that the long waiting periods at hospitals also potentially exposed RWA members to the virus.
  • Some women are unable to meet their stokvels to save and borrow money to take care of their families.
  • They also sell chickens, however, at the moment, they are unable to purchase food for the chickens and also transport them to town to sell.
  • During the school semester, the rural women sell food to students and since schools are closed, there is no one to sell their food to.
  • Women are unable to enjoy their Sexual Reproductive Health rights as clinics no longer provide these services.

Gender Based Violence

  • Women are stuck with the perpetrators of their abuse. As most people are at home there are conflicts looming, one widow in the Lubombo region is being abused by a brother in law over farms which he claims he is now the overseer of the land and does whatever he wants during the lockdown.
  • We had also had a case from the Shiselweni region where an unmarried woman was told to pay E5000.00 to be able to bury her child at her parental homestead.
  • Some violence is perpetrated on children, especially girl children and the police don’t respond immediately to these cases.
  • Some cases are reported to the traditional leader but the traditional leaders say they will only deal with them after the lockdown.

What SRWA have done to curve the situation

The network is able to use social media and forge relationships with other partners who can assist during this time and still look at exploring national media to reach women. Currently we have been able to send bulk SMSes to the membership and collected stories of challenges faced by women.

We have consistently updated the membership and the entire world through our social media pages which are Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for some videos. Through assistance from other sisters we were able to get sanitizer recipes and made sanitizers which was given to the organizers to help distribute to poor and old people in areas with water scarcity in the four geographic regions of eSwatini.

Lesotho, by Matseliso Phakoe

COVID-19 came at the time when the country was already in economic crisis as a lot of our youth are unemployed. A lot of people in the country are confused as they do not understand what COVID-19 is or what it is, as they only hear that it is a deadly virus and that they have to stay at home. The government has, to fight the pandemic, placed the country under total lockdown (schools, workplaces and borders are closed – except those that are considered essential like hospitals and pharmacies).

During this time the government promised to give food parcels to most vulnerable families and pay M800 to textile industry workers who make up 40% of the working class in the country. Because of government\’s failure to deliver what it had promised, the rate of hunger in the country increased. Our members saw this as an opportunity for every one of them, and people around their communities, to have a small garden where they would grow vegetables.

Women are saying they have a problem: because the borders are closed their husbands who work in the mines are no longer coming home or even sending money back home. Those that are street vendors were forced to close their businesses and are afraid that they might not be able to re-establish their businesses as they have used all the money and stock they had.

Smallholder farmers are the most affected as the country did not have subsidized seeds for the period of the lockdown and they are late for the winter ploughing season. The farmers are forced to sell what they had harvested last season at a lower price as people do not have money.

During the lockdown, farmers also had to ask for a permit from their village chief for them to go to the fields, which was a problem as the chief would ask the farmers for money to print the permits, saying the government had not given him stationery. So farmers had to use their own money to get the permits printed and afterwards, there was no transport available to take them to their fields which are a distance from their homes and are difficult to reach because of the terrain in the country.

External students say they are very scared and feel they are going to fail as they have not been to school for a long time, and fear that even if schools re-open they might be in danger of being infected by COVID-19 as they do not have proper personal protective equipment and the government is not providing schools with the equipment.

Our health department has failed us – doctors went on strike, saying they do not have personal protective equipment and fear their lives are at risk; many clinics and hospitals in the country closed too.

Many people lost their jobs because the companies they worked for closed and bosses fear they are not going to sustain their businesses after the pandemic.

Hope, from Rural Women\’s Assembly Lesotho conducted a workshop for 30 women in the country where they were taught what COVID-19 is, how they can protect themselves from it, its signs and myths. Most importantly, they learned how to make face masks, hand sanitizers and tippy taps for those who live in areas where they have an inadequate supply of running water.


A response to COVID-19 from the Rural Women in South Africa

RWA members in South Africa has been distributing food parcels, sanitation kits as well as dignity packs to our members and other rural women. The lockdown restrictions in South Africa has been particularly severe but our members in South Africa are not discouraged. South Africa has the highest confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the continent, with one of the cities, Cape Town, contributing to 10% of the continent\’s coronavirus cases. This is alarming, particularly since some of the lockdown restrictions are going to be lifted in the new month. Despite and in spite of this, our sisters remain very resourceful, working with structures who align in support of the rural women here. Here are a few pictures from their distribution efforts.


Helpful Tips from Dr. Manjusha Coonjan from Mauritius

Mauritius has 334 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 322 of these recoveries and 10 deaths. One of our members in Mauritius, Dr Manjusha Coonjan, sent across some advise on how to keep our first line of defence- our skin and mucous membrane, in tact. The practical advice will help us gear us to protect ourselves against contracting the deadly virus.

The precautions needed for coronavirus are the same that we would take for any flu epidemic.

Let’s first have a general idea of our immune system. Our immune system is best understood as lines of defence against invaders (bacteria , viruses, etc)

i. First line of defence

 Mechanical barriers, for example, intact skin and mucous membrane.

 Chemical barriers. For example, saliva, tears.

 Reflexes, for example, coughing, sneezing, and vomiting.

ii. Second line of defence

 Inflammation and fever.

 Protective proteins that are produced in response to viruses and bacteria

 Natural killer cells (lymphocytes).

 Phagocytes (special white cells that eat pathogens)

iii. Third line of defence

 Lymphocytes: T cells, B cells that fight specific invaders.

Out of all this, we want the first line of defence to be stronger so that the invader does not go beyond it and initiate chain of processes ending in the manifestation of the disease in our body. A lot of what our members have done in locations where water is scarce, create handwashing stations, provide hand sanitisers and also soap. This is an important step toward keeping the first line of defense strong, but there is more.

The ABC\’s of Handwashing- Image from The Well
  • Hand washing with water and soap for 20 seconds is important.
  • Avoid touching your face which contains the organs lined with mucous membrane: eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Vitamin C helps keep skin strong so that it does not get damaged easily. Drink juice from squeezing 1or 2 oranges (with or without half a lemon). It would be a sufficient daily quantity of vitamin C.
  • Water hydrates these organs so that they can function well producing sweat, tears, etc which contains substances that keep the microbes out of the body. We suggest at least 8 glasses a day.
  • Sneezing is your alarm that something is not right. It indicates that there’s something in the nasal cavity which should be removed or that your body temperature is decreasing which happens during winter.

To keep the body temperature constant, so this means:

  • Wear warm clothes if you are feeling chilly even if it is summer.
  • Drink fluids (2–3 Litres per day) at normal room temperature or tepid which is approximately the body temperature; if sick, drink hot fluids.
  • Eat one raw clove of garlic — remove the germ and cut it into tiny cubes and eat each slowly preferably in the morning or prepare a pot of garlic halves (after removing the core) in olive oil. You can eat the equivalent of one clove during diner.
  • Sleep well (7–9 hours). Have you noticed that that when you lack sleep, you tend to feel cold and sometimes do catch a cold even if it is not the season? Deep sleep is vital to recharge ourselves.
  • As soon as you detect a fall in your body temperature, do a footbath the earliest possible. You will know it is working when you sweat.

If you are sick, wearing a mask will help not to infect others. The virus will be present in your oral and nasal secretions. As you cough, sneeze and blow your nose, you will contaminate the environment. Consequently, it is better to self-isolate.

For yoga practitioners, practice your usual routine of asana, pranayama, relaxation and meditation. Do not overdo. Exhaustion causes a loss of bioenergy and decreases the body ability to counteract invaders. Once you feel your body temperature decreasing, do ujjayi until you feel better. It is our first-aid. As for the whole hysteria about this pandemic, it is a challenge to see how centered we are; if we can stay equanimous in the midst of the chaos of the frenzied marketplace.

This article is edited from Dr Manjusha Coonjan\’s Medium article she shared.


As we all move into another month of quarantine, lockdown and isolation in Africa, we look to our members to lead the way in creating and maintaining thriving communities, even during these very difficult times.

We pray that you all remain safe and protected and look forward to hearing more stories from our members in the future.

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